This is the latest installment of a weekly feature on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project. Each installment offers new material for teachers, students and everyone else who wants a dose of reality.

You can learn about the News Literacy Project and all of the educational resources it provides in this piece, but here’s a rundown:

Founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project aims to teach students how to distinguish between what’s real and fake in the age of digital communication and a president who routinely denounces real news as “fake.”

Now the leading provider of news literacy education, it creates digital curriculums and other resources and works with educators and journalists to teach middle and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and provides them with the tools they need to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy. It uses the standards of high-quality journalism as an aspiring yardstick against which to measure all news and information. Just as important, it provides the next generation with an appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press.

The following material comes from the project’s free weekly newsletter, the Sift, which takes the most recent viral rumors, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and journalistic ethics issues and turns them into timely lessons with discussion prompts and links. The Sift, which publishes weekly during the school year, has more than 10,000 subscribers, most of them educators.

Here are two lessons from the Jan. 13 edition of the Sift, as provided by the News Literacy Project. The first is about a story that Teen Vogue ran about Facebook that caused some confusion. The second addresses this question: Could the critical-thinking skills taught as part of media literacy actually make some students more prone to conspiratorial thinking?

From the Sift, Jan. 13 issue

A flattering piece about Facebook posted by Teen Vogue was the source of much confusion last week. “How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election” appeared on Jan. 8 without any indication that it was a piece of sponsored content, paid for by the world’s largest social media company.

Soon after it was posted, an editor’s note — “This is sponsored editorial content” — was added at the top. Later, that note was removed. Finally, the entire piece disappeared. Lauren Rearick, a contributor to Teen Vogue, was at one point listed as the author, but she told Mashable that she didn’t write it. Asked on Twitter what the piece was, Teen Vogue replied: “literally idk.”

In a post that was later deleted, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, called it a “great Teen Vogue piece about five incredible women protecting elections on Facebook.” A company spokeswoman initially said that the piece was “purely editorial”; later, Facebook said that “there was a misunderstanding” and that it indeed “had a paid partnership with Teen Vogue related to their women’s summit, which included sponsored content.”

In its statement, Teen Vogue said: “We made a series of errors labeling this piece, and we apologize for any confusion this may have caused. We don’t take our audience’s trust for granted, and ultimately decided that the piece should be taken down entirely to avoid further confusion.”

Discuss: What is the difference between a piece of sponsored content (also known as “branded content” or “native advertising”) and a piece of journalism? Is it important for news outlets to clearly label such content? Why? If you were in charge of Teen Vogue, how would you have handled the piece about Facebook? Was Teen Vogue right to delete it? Did it sufficiently explain how the mistakes in handling the piece were made? Does this change the level of trust you have in Teen Vogue? Why or why not?

Idea: Have students find examples of sponsored content published by up to five different standards-based news organizations. Ask students to note the differences between the sponsored content and the straight news coverage from the same outlet. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? Do they look the same, or are they labeled differently?

Related: “Branded Content,” a lesson in the Checkology® virtual classroom (Premium account required).


Could the critical-thinking skills taught as part of media literacy make some students more prone to conspiratorial thinking? That’s the question Will Partin raises in a Jan. 8 opinion piece in the Outline, an online publication “focused on the increasingly complex confluence of culture, power and technology.”

Partin, a graduate research assistant in the department of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that many of the ways that adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory support their beliefs — by, for example, doing their own research, reading critically and questioning all sources of information — are also strategies that students often learn as part of “media literacy.”

In short, Partin contends that problems (such as belief in conspiracy theories) can arise when skepticism runs amok and turns into a kind of cynicism that leads people not just to question but also distrust all sources of information — including information from “knowledge-making institutions” like the medical establishment and mainstream news organizations.

Note: The term “media literacy” is often used as an umbrella term for several overlapping fields, including news literacy and information literacy.

Also note: What is taught as “media literacy” may vary significantly from one educator to another.

Discuss: Can some healthy information habits, such as doing your own research about issues, lead people astray? How? How can we know when to trust experts and respected institutions about a given subject? Does exercising skepticism online mean questioning all sources of information equally? How can the practice of asking critical questions lead to an uncertainty that facts exist, and that some things are demonstrably “true”?

Here are some of the past lessons I’ve published: